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Offseason’s greetings

O’Neal is introduced by Celtics

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / August 11, 2010

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WALTHAM — The money didn’t bring Shaquille O’Neal to Boston. He easily could spend the $2.8 million he’ll earn over the next two seasons on Justin Bieber memorabilia. It was a chance meeting in Italy with Celtics coach Doc Rivers, at which Rivers did some coaxing.

Happenstance allegedly brought the two of them together in Italy where they were able to talk about things. A title was the topic. It always is. But it was one other tidbit that Rivers threw out that raised the Diesel’s ears.

“He has a 1 p.m. practice,’’ O’Neal said.

When you’ve lived 38 years and spent the last 18 crashing into every big man from Arvydas Sabonis to Dwight Howard, late practices are one of the bigger perks. After another meeting with Rivers in Orlando, Fla., and after O’Neal signed a two-year contract, he arrived in Waltham yesterday. The man of a million nicknames (the Big Aristotle, the Diesel) with seemingly a million more to comb through (the Big Dig, the Big Shamrock), was resplendent in his charcoal suit and big bow tie.

He went through all the formalities — the grin and grabs with the organization’s higher-ups, the point-and-clicks with his sixth NBA jersey — then cut to the issues at hand — questions about how hungry he is at this late stage of his career, about his relationship with Kendrick Perkins (the foe-turned-friend who needed stitches in his lip after taking an elbow from O’Neal in May), and about his declaration that the next two years will be his last in the league.

He’s set the timer on his career already — “730 days’’ — and he doesn’t plan on wasting any time. Asked if he had the same type of desire that made him a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, an All-Star MVP, and a Finals MVP, and won him four titles, O’Neal repeated the question as if he were in a spelling bee.

“Do I have that same type of hunger? Yes. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here. I don’t like wasting people’s time. I don’t like wasting my time. I’ve missed over 200 games. So I owe myself and I owe everybody two to three years left. I signed a two-year deal here. I’m going to give it all I’ve got. And I think Doc and the people will see we still have hunger, we’re still trying to play, and I’m still trying to win. Because at the end of the day, when I close my book, it’s all about winning.’’

Celtics president Danny Ainge said the courting of O’Neal started early in free agency, with speculation bubbling while the Celtics were in Orlando for summer league. The talks were on and off over the course of the last five weeks.

The Hawks were among O’Neal’s suitors, but aside from his asking price, they already had a young, budding All-Star center in Al Horford.

“I really didn’t know anything about Shaq coming aboard with us, until I got a phone call from his rep saying, ‘Shaq would like to play in Boston,’ and he’s ready to come on your terms,’’ said Ainge. “Up until that point, I didn’t think he would come, so it happened very quickly.’’

The Celtics are acquiring a personality as much as a player.

“It creates excitement and intensity and it puts us right back into another playoff run,’’ said owner Steve Pagliuca. “I think Shaq could have gotten more money in other places, but I think he sees this is the last two years of his career and what better way to end it than with a storied franchise with the Garden filled up every night. I think that’s how he wants to go out.’’

Now that he’s in Green, the challenge will be how he’ll fit in. His rebounding answers an immediate issue — one that cost the Celtics in the Finals. But his pick-and-roll defense creates another. He made sure to shout out Kevin Garnett, who flew in from Hawaii to be at O’Neal’s introduction. But Shaq’s playful nature is the polar opposite of Garnett’s steely concentration.

Hovering over it all is how things will play out at center. With Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal, the Celtics added reinforcements for the injured Perkins (ACL), but they also created a situation in which Perkins will have to compete for his job when he returns in early 2011. Ainge did his best to sound reassuring about Perkins’s circumstances.

“He has a very bright future and he knows we think very highly of him,’’ Ainge said. “We’re not certain though when he [will be] 100 percent, and this allows us to be patient with Kendrick.

“At the same time, I’m sure he’s going to be worried and nervous since we are going to win games with this front line even when he’s not playing. I’ll be sitting with and talking with Kendrick throughout this whole process and hopefully he can just focus on getting himself healthy and competing for getting his job back.’’

Rivers must mix O’Neal with the rest of the Celtics’ ingredients. He made it clear during their second talk that there would only be 20-25 minutes for O’Neal, and that they would be off the bench.

“With Jermaine and Shaq and we’ll have Perk coming back at some point, you want to have an idea where you are going with the team and each guy’s role,’’ Rivers said. “That will be a challenge early on [seeing] which guy fits the role. I know Shaq and Jermaine, but I’ve never coached them. So that’s a whole different thing.’’

So the Celtics will add another larger-than-life “Big’’ to an already supersized Big Three, which just made room for All-Star Rajon Rondo. Rivers said O’Neal should fit right in.

“Another calm guy that doesn’t stir things up,’’ he joked. “Our locker room will be a little more interesting. Heck, I’m used to it now.’’

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